Airmanship, flight discipline and human factors training


7.1 What is airmanship?

The definition of airmanship is somewhat indistinct. With the introduction of computerised control systems, the application of airmanship is certainly more broadly based and complex now than 50 years ago. Some might say it involves pilot proficiency, flight discipline, aircraft system and airworthiness knowledge, and skill in resource management, plus being fully cognisant of every situation and exercising excellent judgement. A few years ago someone did say — in relation to the management of airline transport aircraft — airmanship is “the ability to act wisely in the conduct of flight operations under difficult conditions”. If that is valid then the three-pilot flight-deck crew of Air France Flight 447, with 20 000 flight hours experience, failed their crucial airmanship test on June 1, 2009.

The author’s definition is reasonably applicable to sport and recreational aviation:

Good airmanship is that indefinable something, perhaps just a state of mind, that separates the superior airman/airwoman from the average. It is not particularly a measure of skill or technique, nor is it just common sense (i.e. the normal understanding and judgement we should all have). Rather, it is a measure of a person’s accumulated learning — their knowledge and awareness of the aircraft and its flight environment, and of their own capabilities and behavioural characteristics; combined with good judgement, wise decision-making and attention to detail in the application of that learning; plus a high sense of self-discipline.

Airmanship is the cornerstone of pilot competency.

Competency has been defined as the combination of knowledge, skills and attitude required to perform a task well or to operate an aircraft safely — in all foreseeable situations.

For example, here is an extract from an RA-Aus incident report: “The aircraft, with instructor and student on board, was returning to the airfield when a pitch-down occurred. Not known to them the elevator control horn assembly had failed. Control stick and trim inputs failed to correct the situation, but a reduction in power did have some influence, though not enough to regain level flight. A satisfactory flight condition was achieved by the pilots pushing their bodies back as far as possible and hanging their arms rearward. A successful landing at the airfield was accomplished.”

A flight operation, even in the most basic low-momentum ultralight, is a complex interaction of pilot, machine, maintenance, practical physics, airspace structures, traffic, weather, planning and risk. When every flight is undertaken, it is not only the aircraft that should be airworthy; the total environment — flight planning, airframe, engine, avionics, atmospheric conditions, pilot condition and aircraft handling — should allow for the safe, successful conclusion of each operation. It is the perception — founded on the acquired underpinning knowledge — of the state of that overall flight environment and its potential threats that provides the basis for good airmanship and safe, efficient, error-free flight. Insufficient perception and insufficient self-discipline create a pilot at risk.

The bulk of sport and recreational aviation is undertaken by ‘amateur’ pilots (using the original meaning of the term; i.e. a lover of a particular activity or pastime), but such pilots must still approach aviation with the continuing diligence of a professional. Less experienced pilots must acquire levels of airmanship consistent with their progress along the aviation learning curve.

Ensuring engine and/or airframe airworthiness prior to flight is a prime component of airmanship. Owner-pilots are totally responsible for the continuing maintenance of their aircraft, be it a hang glider or a high performance aeroplane. However — for the person accepting an aircraft they do not own/operate — airworthiness, unfortunately, is a matter of faith in the operator, and in the accuracy and completeness of the aircraft’s maintenance record. Daily inspections and pre-flight checks cannot assure airworthiness — the pilot does not know what is hidden under the skin or within the engine.

Just as the term ‘seamanship’ implies a full appreciation of surface wave action and sea movement, so ‘airmanship’ implies a full appreciation of atmospheric waves, eddies, thermal activity and turbulence.


7.2 Risk management

Most sport and recreational pilots accumulate only a small number of hours each year; about two-thirds of powered aircraft fly less than 60 hours. Perhaps such annual hours is enough to maintain physical flying skills learned at the ab initio flight school — if the pilot has established a program for self-maintenance of that level of proficiency — but maybe not enough to maintain a high level of cognitive skills; for example, situation awareness, judgement and action formulation. In addition, having completed flight theory studies sufficient to pass the basic aeronautical knowledge test and achieve the RAAO’s Pilot Certificate, it seems that many, perhaps most, pilots leave it at that — so failing to expand their knowledge by further in-depth studies of flight dynamics and the application of the acquired knowledge; possibly because it involves sometimes difficult detail rather than the broad-brush approach of the flight school. Or, perhaps, assuming that the necessary knowledge will be acquired through subsequent flight experience, also assuming (I guess) that they will survive every learning experience in a condition to continue flying.

However, many pilots are just continually repeating the same flight experience — each year is the same as the last — so all they accumulate is a repetition of one year’s experience. They have no program of deliberately advancing knowledge and skills, nor have they really absorbed the safety basics that should have been drummed into them over the years — never turn back following EFATO; always maintain a safe airspeed; if the engine has been misbehaving never take off until the problem is identified and fixed; if the engine goes sick in flight don’t try to make it back to base, land ASAP; don’t continue into marginal conditions — turn back; and so on.

So a safety problem exists with some pilots. Many are just not ensuring that they accumulate adequate post-certificate knowledge and skills. In short, they never really learn much about flight dynamics and the atmosphere (and some of their accumulated beliefs are dangerously false); they lack other pertinent knowledge; and worse, they are just not listening or hearing. Be assured that every pilot needs to know more.

The sound pilot must understand how the environmental parts relate and interact with each other, and judge the likely consequences of any action, deliberate non-action or random event. A systematic approach to continuing improvement in airmanship, plus an ability for self-appraisal, is necessary to achieve that understanding. The Flight Manual or Pilot’s Operating Handbook for the powered aircraft model being flown must be fully understood, and the content recollectable when needed in an emergency. Every flight should be conducted correctly and precisely, using procedures appropriate to the airspace class and without taking shortcuts, even if just a couple of circuits and landings are contemplated.

To paraphrase Louis Pasteur’s 1754 observation: ‘Chance favours only those who have prepared’.

Pilots should be aware that fatigue, anxiety, emotional state — or flying an aircraft that stretches their skill level or just flying an aircraft they don’t like — will affect perception and good judgement. See the “I’M SAFE” checklist. Most studies of aircraft accidents or incidents reveal not a single cause but a series of interrelated events or actions that, being allowed to progress without appropriate intervention from someone, lead to an unplanned termination of the flight.

A U.S. Navy pilot once wrote “In aviation you very rarely get your head bitten off by a tiger — you usually get nibbled to death by ducks.” However, U.S. Navy pilots are well-trained, well-informed, self-disciplined individuals who do not expose themselves to those situations where eventually the tiger WILL bite your head off.

Many years ago, the gliding community demonstrated that there were two main cyclic periods (for them) where people were accident prone. This was about the 100-hour mark, where pilots were beginning to think they were immortal, and about 200–250 hours when they were sure they were; being survivors of the incidents of the first period.

Dr Rob Lee, the then Director of the Australian Bureau of Air Safety Investigation, wrote in 1998:

Over 40 years of investigation of General Aviation accidents by BASI and its predecessors clearly shows that while the immediate circumstances of each accident may well be unique, the underlying factors are always drawn from the same disturbingly familiar cluster — pre-flight preparation and planning, decision making, perception, judgement, fuel management and handling skills“.

A study of the factors contributing to fatal general aviation accidents in Australia for the ten years 1991–2000 showed that inadequate flight planning was a factor in 38% of the accidents, aircraft handling errors in 30%, and fuel starvation or exhaustion in 10%.

[ The next section in the airmanship and safety sequence is the following section 7.3 . ‘Situation awareness‘]


7.3 Situation awareness

(The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority’s 2009 publication ‘Safety behaviours – work book for pilots’ © CASA includes airmanship and situation awareness text from this page.)

Being situationally aware means to be fully cognisant of the big picture at all times, by continually collecting and judging information from sources inside and outside the cockpit. In flight, a pilot has to be thinking several minutes ahead of the aircraft, not several seconds behind it — to perceive what’s going on and be able to impose sound judgement on every change, from a minor distraction to a major in-flight emergency. Stress may build rapidly in an emergency situation and the pilot will tend to unconsciously focus on a very few aspects of the situation, without noticing that other aspects are degrading — airspeed or attitude for example. Good handling of any unusual situation — particularly the first major emergency — provides a basis for confidence in abilities. Poor handling of an emergency will undermine confidence.

(Note: I have used the term ‘situation awareness’ throughout the various guides rather than the more commonly seen ‘situational awareness’. This is to accord with the official documents CAAP 5.59-1(0) ,   CAAP 5.81-1(0) and the CASA day VFR syllabus – aeroplanes (PPL and CPL). CAAPs provide recommendations and guidance to illustrate a method, or several methods by which legislative requirements may be met.         … JB)

There is much written on the ways to improve situation awareness but it boils down to a few basics:

  • Assimilate an adequate knowledge base. To enable appropriate judgements and manage threats — or your errors — you must have sufficient underpinning knowledge of all relative aspects of flight, of human limitations and of the aircraft you are flying.
  • Plan well in advance with a properly researched weather forecast and flight plan. Pre-flight planning may start days before a flight. Even local flying should be preceded by looking at a met forecast the evening before — to compare against the conditions you find and how the sky really looks. You must know the aircraft’s take-off and landing capability in the existing or expected environment.
  • Continually monitor flight progress against that plan, re-evaluating where necessary and implementing alternatives as soon as the need becomes apparent.
  • Develop and use a scanning technique that takes in engine instrument indications, flight instrument indications, aircraft heading, flight path (60° left, ahead, 60° right, above, below), time, map and ground. Develop a scanning pattern that covers everything without becoming superficial but also allows time to be allocated to individual scan segments according to your perceived needs. For scanning techniques read ‘Eye on the sky‘ in the September – October 2003 issue of Flight Safety Australia. For a research report on the limitations of the VFR unalerted ‘see-and-avoid’ principle read this 1991 ATSB report. For a description of the pilot’s role in collision avoidance read the FAA advisory circular AC90-48C.
  • Project ahead and rehearse your actions — for example:
    “The next checkpoint will be in sight in …”
    “If the next checkpoint doesn’t appear as scheduled I will … ”
    “If the cloud is not as high as it appears or there is more of it than there appears I will …”
    “If an aircraft appears on a straight-in approach I will …”
    “If the engine packs up soon after lift-off I will …”
    “If the engine packs up above 200 feet I will …”
  • Avoid locking on to a problem, a task — or, for instance, your intended landing point — for too long, don’t keep your head in the office, keep the scan going, be aware of the relative position and movement of other traffic, hold the heading and fly the aircraft at a safe airspeed appropriate to current atmospheric conditions and your height above the surface and obstructions.
  • When operating at or in the vicinity of airfields, use a radio transceiver to communicate your position and intentions to other aircraft. Listen out for those key words that indicate other aircrafts’ positions and intentions. Be aware that not all aircraft will be radio-equipped and even those that are may not be listening out on the appropriate frequency. Project ahead to plan safe and orderly traffic separation — most light aircraft mid-air collisions and near-misses occur in the vicinity of an airfield.
  • In short — be well informed, plan well in advance, fly to that plan, continually monitor flight progress, use a scanning technique and be aware. Know where all other aircraft are and their intentions, communicate when appropriate, project ahead and, above all, don’t be distracted — fly the aircraft and fly it at a safe speed and within your limits and the aircraft’s performance limits.


[The next section in the airmanship and safety sequence is section 7.4 below ‘‘Self-discipline‘ ]


7.4 Self-discipline

The reason for choosing to ignore the established rules is usually to save time or money, coupled with the belief that they will get away with it because ‘It can’t happen to me’ or ‘It’ll be okay’. Sometimes, particularly when they flout the laws of physics or aerodynamics, it is either pure bravado or wanton disregard (i.e. plain stupidity), or maybe it is just lack of knowledge.

There are — fortunately only a few — rogue pilots in the various aviation communities who believe that the rules, written or otherwise, are stupid or unnecessary, and so determine to flout them. Such people ignore the trail of injury and death, stretching back over most of the 20th century, which formulated the rules and conventions. Each conscious infraction of those rules further dulls good judgement until crunch time finally arrives and, unfortunately, such rogues often take others with them. All pilots have a moral responsibility to inform a passenger, intending to fly with a person known to engage in illegal or doubtful activities (e.g. unauthorised low flying or inappropriate manoeuvres around the airfield), that flight with that person is inadvisable. If a person is known to consistently indulge in illegal or dangerous flight then there is a responsibility to inform an appropriate authority — police, CASA, RA-Aus, HGFA, etc.

All pilots must occasionally ask themselves the question: Am I maintaining a fully disciplined approach to all flight and pre-flight procedures? And if not — why? Good airmanship cannot co-exist with poor discipline. A self-evident truth is that a pilot lacking the appropriate self-discipline is an accident in preparation.

Discipline overrides panic and reinforces the ability to maintain/regain control of the aircraft when faced with a serious flight situation.

[The next section in the airmanship and safety sequence is the section describing the ‘
Planning and equipment check list‘ ]



7.5 Rules, regulations and common sense

Not even the most experienced pilot, flying maximum hours every year, can judge the probability of all likely outcomes in any situation, expected or unexpected, and make the appropriate decisions. For that reason, among others, a system of regulations, rules, conventions, practices and standard procedures exists for recreational and sport aviation — and all other aviation communities — to follow. Once acquainted with them, these rules and procedures, plus commonsense practicality, generally provide an acceptable level of protection. But far too often, pilots and others — all of whom should know better — deliberately choose not to follow them and thus abandon that inherent protection.

7.6 Personal operating procedures

Standard operating procedures (e.g. joining the circuit, completing a flight note) are not included in the RA-Aus Operations Manual. However, every pilot should develop and follow their own set of personal operating procedures and apply them, where applicable, to each flight operation: e.g. a procedure to be followed if unsure of position on a cross-country flight; or turn-back if you find yourself flying toward rising terrain and a lowering cloud base; or having the self-discipline, when under time or other pressures, to decide whether you should take-off in the first place! If there is doubt about the weather, the wise pilot leaves the sky to the IFR-rated pilot in the IFR-rated aircraft. A non-IFR pilot caught out in instrument meteorological conditions [IMC], or dark night conditions, will be very lucky to survive.

The dedicated pilot flies accurately, using approved technique, knowing the performance (i.e. the best rate) airspeeds for the aircraft being flown and consistently maintaining such airspeeds — and the chosen altitudes and headings. She or he will know the minimum safe speeds for various angles of bank when turning in level, climbing and descending flight — and at varying weights and cg positions. The pilot will know the aircraft’s glide performance and, during flight, will be continually monitoring the ground for possible safe landing sites should the engine fail. Such pilots will have developed a set of tolerances for personal performance assessment; e.g. airspeed consistently within 5 knots, altitude within 100 feet or heading held within 5°. The dedicated airman or airwoman aims to fly with style, making smooth, timely and balanced transitions when turning, climbing, descending or levelling off so that the flight path flows, rather than being seen as a string of loosely connected manoeuvres. Every landing is a gentle arrival that doesn’t strain any part of the aircraft.

7.7 Human factors training

The term ‘pilot error’ appears extensively in safety investigation reports but is generally a most unsatisfactory summation of an event and its causal factors. In the 1980s the International Civil Aviation Organization [ICAO], the administrative authority for the world’s international air transport system, finally accepted the inevitability of human failure in flight, maintenance and other aviation operations. Consequently, in the late 1980s ICAO introduced ‘human factors’ [HF] training and assessment requirements for pilots (and others), and circular 227-AN/136 ‘Training of operational personnel in human factors’ was issued. Effective August 2008, RA-Aus introduced human factors training to the flight training syllabus; consequently, from August 2008, all student pilots study HF in their training and, by 31 August 2010, all existing Pilot Certificate holders must complete an RA-Aus HF course or pass the RA-Aus written HF examination, or show other evidence of meeting the required competencies of the RA-Aus Operations Manual, section 3.09.

The Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority [CASA] also decided that, from 1 July 2009, threat and error management will be added to the existing human factor aeronautical knowledge examinations within their day VFR syllabus. The Civil Aviation Advisory Publication CAAP 5.59-1(0) ‘Teaching and assessing single-pilot human factors and threat and error management’ was published in October 2008 and is recommended reading. CAAP 5.59-1 links human factors with deficiencies in airmanship. The CAAP defines human factors as ‘Optimising safe flight operations by enhancing the relationships between people, activities and equipment. This means: achieving the safest outcome for flight operations by the most effective use of people, and what people do when operating in the aviation environment and the equipment they use.’

The 2009 CASA safety behaviours publication ‘Safety behaviours: Human Factors for Pilots‘ is available. The pack consists of:

  • Safety behaviours – resource guide for pilots (183 pages plus a CD)
  • Safety behaviours – work-book for pilots (111 pages)
  • Safety behaviours – facilitator’s guide (15 pages)
  • Guidance material – extract from CAAP 5.59-1(0) (42 pages)

The pack can be purchased from the CASA online store for the cost of postage (one copy per person only).

Further reading

The online version of CASA’s magazine Flight Safety Australia contains some articles relating to airmanship, which are recommended reading. A categorised index of articles of interest to recreational pilots contained in Flight Safety Australia since 1998 is available on this site. The articles are listed within ten categories together with a very short summary of the content.


7.8 A CFI’s viewpoint

The late Tony Hayes, once CFI of Brisbane Valley Leisure Aviation Centre — and the inaugural holder of the RA-Aus Meritorious Service Award — published this airmanship interpretation.

“Airmanship — aviation could not exist in a responsible manner without this apparently intangible component. Let us define airmanship exactly so you do know what you are searching for to make your own, and thus achieve personal protection, pride, and protection of others, in your own standards of what you do, or propose to do.

The big intangible is our personal attitude to flying — why we do it, how we do it. Do you care to define an individual’s personal attitude to both flying and the environment in which that person’s flying is conducted? Many things form our attitudes and we need to consider these if we wish to see airmanship as it really is — get a handle on it and make it our own.

That is easy enough, but before we start — accept that airmanship is something that grows. It grows on experience whether shaped by training or by personal exposure to what you do. You cannot learn airmanship only from a book or an instructor, you are as much guided there by exposure to those circumstances, encountered with growing experience, which require airmanship.

Whether it be flying training or airworthiness training — only the basics can be established. Like the runner in a relay race taking the baton — you have the potential winning element in your hand, it is up to you if you win or not, take on what you have been given, and make it work for both yourself and the others with whom you share the skies. Winning the airmanship race is not simply about staying alive or not bending yourself or aircraft — it is walking off the airfield relaxed, knowing you have not simply performed but have crafted an activity, and being totally aware you have enjoyed the sum of that and owe nothing to anyone.

Let us start with a target to shoot for.

Airmanship — a definition

‘A personal and situational management state required to allow a human being to enter and exit, in safety, an environment which they were not naturally designed to inhabit. This state comes into being immediately a decision is made that an aircraft is going to be flown and continues until you walk away from the completed flight and correctly secured aircraft.’

That continuation may require an instinctive willingness to assess, between flights, the lessons that have been stated by the flight just completed. Airmanship is as much a ground-based attitude as it is an air-based one.

Airmanship structure

We are now going to look at the basics upon which airmanship is formed and therefore can be understood. We have already touched upon one — PERSONAL ATTITUDE — now we must put this in context with the others: KNOWLEDGE — SKILL — CONFIDENCE — RESPONSIBILITY. These four are then applied by personal attitude.

The application of airmanship can be defined to three areas:

  • the airworthiness of the aircraft
  • the operation of the aircraft
  • and the environment in which the aircraft operates.

We will briefly examine each of these requirements and applications. All four requirements are intimately interconnected with each other and with applications, so cannot be treated entirely as stand-alone subjects.


AIRWORTHINESS. You do not have to be a mechanical engineer to be a pilot but you do need to know sufficient about the aircraft structure and systems to enable you to safely pre-flight it and adequately monitor its continued satisfactory operation. The degree of knowledge required will depend upon the complexity of the machine and the range of environments in which the machine is capable of operation.   (See the ‘home builder’ comment below.)

As pilots do not have to be engineers, there is therefore a supporting mechanical and engineering system to which the pilot will generally interface, via documentation, which revolve around periodic servicing and in-service defect reports. Understanding this system is part of the knowledge requirement such that you do appreciate whether the aircraft is provisionally serviceable or not — subject to pilot inspection.

OPERATIONS. These are very much the pilot’s responsibility and sufficient knowledge must be present for the safe operation of the aircraft within the parameters for which it has been designed. This knowledge must extend adequately from flight principles through to understanding of systems operation. All of this must then interface with the environment within which the aircraft will operate and this in turn requires understanding and application of airspeed limitations, manoeuvres permitted, weather minima (e.g. maximum crosswind limits), etc.


— Meteorology. The forces exerted by the ever-changing atmosphere upon an aircraft are far removed from those weather considerations we have knowledge of when we exist only on the ground. The pilot has to be able to read the sky like an advertisement, interpret current conditions and identify changing conditions along with the rate and degree of change. Decisions so made then have to be balanced with aircraft operational limits and the pilot’s personal skill limits — usually this is a forecast being responded to before the situation has moved beyond estimated limitations.

— Behaviour controls. In simple terms this is knowing the ‘rules of the road’ in terms of rules of the air. From simple basics such as ‘give way’ rules, to airfield marking systems, to airspace restrictions — these are all designed to enable the present huge variety of aircraft to share airspace safely. They must be understood and instinctively applied by the pilot.

— Regulation. Partly from lessons learnt the hard way in the past, and partly due to an ever expanding population both in the air and on the ground — the information resource of who does what to whom is bound into regulation. The pilot needs to know this regulation as applicable to his or her operation, respect that others have different parameters they must follow and make allowance accordingly, plus have the regulation available and currently updated to suit the operations being conducted.


This is an area determined, at least on the surface, by our ability to perform certain actions and procedures. But you can teach a bird to talk — that does not mean the bird understands what it is doing or can hold a conversation. Skill is underpinned entirely by knowledge and from this skill may be put in context and is capable of organised development based upon growing experience.

AIRWORTHINESS. The degree of skill in this area depends upon the level of airworthiness control you intend to apply. In pilot pre-flight terms, the skill will be certainly underpinned by a healthy element of curiosity — does it actually work and is it likely to stay in place! As we move further into servicing and repair, then hand and machine skills (adequately supported by appropriate knowledge) increase. For both control and convenience, divisions are made as to the degree of work which may be undertaken via various airworthiness maintenance approvals, each requiring higher knowledge and skill levels.

OPERATIONS. As the aircraft you have access to become more complex then so the further you are removed from basic stick and rudder skills to new skills that are mainly founded upon systems operation and changing operating parameters. Those basic skills have to be totally and automatically in place, with sufficient competence of application supported by knowledge, such that the new skills may be safely founded.

With this foundation, you may move from a simple aircraft to a slightly more complex one with some confidence and further acquisition of systems and operating parameters — but you should instinctively stop if you are clearly going beyond your existing knowledge and skill base until you have corrected that situation.

There is another element to skill and that is currency. None of us, no matter how much we have flown, are any better than our next arrival on the ground. If we are not current (particularly with more complex aircraft, which require confident fluidity in the checks and procedures with their operation) then we could just be rolling the dice on the basis of ‘been there, done that — she’ll be right’. But even the simplest of aircraft will severely bite the ‘out of practice’ pilot. How much out of practice is ‘out of practice’? The airman instinctively knows.

Situational appraisal, how long out of practice, so many other things — all come into play here. As a command pilot, the airman will make a valid decision based on information and assessment, and react accordingly and safely.

ENVIRONMENT. In this situation we are less concerned about the tirades of the weather (although that has an obvious control upon how skill is intended to be employed). In airmanship terms we are more interested in the human environment of peer group pressure, personal needs to achieve a task, or (for some pilots) pressure applied by employers.

Too often, a flight becomes driven by emotive pressure and/or need to complete a flight for personal gain (in so many forms). Emotion and personal gain are the two biggest killers yet invented by our race. Every year the figures continue going on the board in terms of deaths and wrecked aircraft — ran out of fuel, weather out of parameters, flew into lowering cloud base and rising ground. It still happens every year!

As human beings we are never more vulnerable than when our skill is being questioned or challenged by others — or even ourselves, particularly in situations where by its very nature flying begins being interpreted as some ‘personal courage combined with ability’ thing. The true airman, with knowledge present and supporting skill in place, is dispassionate and evaluates situations on known and observed circumstances. Too often for some, tomorrow may indeed have been soon enough, but was not!


Confidence can be underpinned by one simple control statement — ‘If in doubt, don’t’. If there is doubt, then confidence by definition does not exist. If you are not confident then you should not go.

Confidence is formed by adequate levels of knowledge and skill. The airman has these in constant balance and sees a flagging of confidence as a natural warning bell — there is yet more work or revision to be done so that confidence is truly there. When those warning bells sound then it does not matter if the doubt concerns whether the aircraft is serviceable, or if you are up to the flying you are undertaking — time to take pause and look for additional abilities.

There is also another element to confidence, and that is overconfidence. In this situation, even adequate knowledge and skill is being superseded by an emotive form of confidence. Once with a Pilot’s Certificate achieved, the need to satisfy an instructor’s discipline may fade, knowledge becomes steadily forgotten as a stimulus to what must be, and skill currency may go the same way. With the demand strictures of flying training now past, near enough may be good enough — forgotten is the need for why those original standards were set.

Overconfidence meets its true ground in exhibitionist flying. In this situation the pilot is driven by ego, deliberately in front of an audience (which is mandatory) to show they are more than mortal and can really ‘fly’. Unfortunately, the accident records confirm that such people are indeed mortal. Those tend to be the ‘headlines’ examples — but the run-of-the-mill situations are the greater number of people who bend themselves and/or aircraft — or — the much larger majority who narrowly avoid disaster, and hopefully become airmen as a result of that new demonstration of their inadequacy.


If confidence cannot exist without knowledge and skill then the exercise of responsibility cannot exist without all three.

Here the airmanship pattern may be disrupted and two opposites meet. A totally trained, knowledgeable and skilled pilot, under the influence of irresponsible behaviour, can be as discounted as the worst non trained aerial lout.

Ultimately we are human. We are subject to human drives. So maybe there is another definition to airmanship — the self-discipline and wisdom to rise above our human condition and just be practical about what we do and where we do it.


Within the ultralight community we have a sector of effort which is, via particularly CAO 95.10, but within overtones of ‘amateur built’ — an area where airmanship principles themselves may be seen by reflection. In this area, the intending pilot does have to embrace sufficient elements of the designer, engineer and aircraft constructor. The requirements for knowledge and skill are self-evident. Confidence will ultimately be expressed by a preparedness to fly the finished machine. Responsibility will be expressed by understanding that sufficient knowledge and skill was present to build the machine to an airworthy standard, but there is also equal knowledge and skill present in the operations area to ensure that the proving flights are conducted safely, responsibly and with validity. Near enough is never good enough on a new aircraft type.

So the ultimate definition of airmanship, when seen in context with allied disciplines, comes down to quality of performance within prevailing circumstances — backed by quality of personal intent.

Flying is fun — a pile of wreckage is neither. Between those two extremes is the ultimate expression of airmanship.”


The following document is an extract from the BVLAC flying training manual written by the late Tony Hayes. (The flying school has since ceased operations.)

“For all my exposure to aviation — which extends over my entire life from my birth next to an operational bomber airfield in World War 2 — when I came to pilot training myself I met a term so commonly used yet nowhere could I find actually defined and explained, Airmanship. So I will fix that right now in my own flying training manual.

The problem is understood once Airmanship itself is actually understood. It is very real and manifestations of it may be seen at every airfield or places people come to fly aircraft. Yet Airmanship is an intangible, for it is a state of mind, personal convictions and self discipline expressed in our actions and attitudes. It is the prudent operation of a machine, and the management of circumstances surrounding that operation, within an element we were not naturally designed to inhabit.

Airmanship appears in every flying area and sets aside the airman from the aircraft driver. It is founded firmly in basic training where mental attitudes to flying are forged, and sometimes in self training where a pilot learns the hard way about what is prudent or not, gets away with it, and elects to make more sensible decisions at the right time, next time.

Under growing experience airmanship may grow and blossom into a comfortable protective cloak, resting light upon the shoulders, worn perhaps with pride, but never in vanity, and giving the protection of 2 inch armour plate.

The very need for its presence is a reminder that we are privileged to transit from our natural element into another. There may be a high price for such transition if that act is made in scorn or ignorance. But we may go there safely if we acknowledge the limitations of ourselves and our machines, so generating a curious mixture of humility and confidence which is expressed in the very form of airmanship.

Airmanship may be performing a proper pre-flight check of an aircraft rather than a casual look-around. It is something as instinctively looking before turning. It is actually doing pre take-off and pre-landing checks — not mouthing the words. It is sensible pre-flight planning — either for a circuit or going over the horizon. It may be as simple as looking at the windsock before hitting the ‘loud’ lever, or as complex as interpreting a changing weather pattern. It is the essential personal and situational management difference between being up there wishing you were down here, rather than being down here wishing you were up there.

But, founded on flawed training, or growing experience driven by a different pride, airmanship may wither into a deadly weed of contempt for those who slavishly obey ‘regulation’ or are not deemed ‘good enough’ to sort out situations as they happen. People driven by such views, in their ignorance, inhabit a perilous place of their own making wherein they have become an accident looking for somewhere to happen, and so ensure that it will happen.

The non-airman will discount that the ‘officious regulation’ is (in the main) a book written in the blood of people who found out the hard way and handed down to us methods of avoiding their fate. In discarding that knowledge so is generated the certainty of the same fate, standing in the shadows, waiting.

The airman is a person who maintains a valid skill and knowledge currency such that when the unexpected does happen there is ability and composure enough to manage the situation into safety. He or she, is a person with a sense of balance and intelligence enough to heed the lessons of the past, apply them in the present, and so ensure a future to be able to fly again, and again, and again.

You will be hearing a great deal more about airmanship in your time with us, and now you know what we are actually talking about.”

— Tony Hayes, CFI; Brisbane Valley Leisure Aviation Centre


The next module in this ‘Joining sport and recreational aviation’ series concerns pilot maintenance of RA-Aus aircraft.